The Nile crocodiles came, I’ll admit, as something of a surprise. Admiring a brace of Crocodylus niloticus was about the last thing I expected to find on my escape to the Bazaruto Archipelago. I’d come to this scattering of islands off central Mozambique in search of white sands, colourful cocktails and cerulean waters. Not fearsome relics from the dinosaur age. And yet there they were; floating along like toothy submarines beneath the waters of Lengwe Lake in the heart of Bazaruto Island.
“This island was once part of the mainland, this is why we have these freshwater lakes and crocodiles on Bazaruto,” explains my guide Lourenço, who has lived here since childhood. “In the mornings you’ll usually see them here on the shore in the sunshine. Once the day heats up they are out in the deeper water though.”
While the crocs are the star residents of the lakes that lie between the sand dunes and the deep blue sea, there’s no shortage of life away from the beach. In the thick bush around the lakes samango monkeys and duiker are often seen, while the night air in the coastal forests is often filled with the haunting ‘bush baby’ cry of the galagos.
We’d also spent the morning identifying some of the 180 bird species that call these islands home; from black-winged stilts to greater flamingos. The lakes are still alive with birdcalls as we hop back in the 4x4: the sun is high, and the beach is calling.
While the community visits and 4x4 excursions offer an interesting look at island life, it’s the white coral sands and crystal waters that draw most travellers to this stretch of Mozambique. And it’s not hard to see why, with pristine beaches fringed by Instagram-friendly palm trees, and stylish beach lodges offering laid-back luxury on demand.
Bazaruto Island is the largest in the Bazaruto Archipelago of central Mozambique; a land of ancient sailing dhows and bright blue seas, waving palms and idyllic beach resorts. And yet, even better, it’s merely a 90-minute flight from the bustle of Johannesburg.
While Bazaruto Island is the largest, the archipelago is actually a network of six islands, with Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque, Banque, Santa Carolina and Pansy Shell Island strung out along the gorgeous coastline of central Mozambique.
Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort was my first stop after jetting in from Joburg, and a fine choice it was too. While many lodges in the region are firmly built for honeymooners and empty-nesters spending the kids’ inheritance, the welcoming atmosphere and laid-back approach of Anantara make it an ideal choice for those with kids, or multi-generational groups.
It’s one of just three hotels on Bazaruto Island, and blends Robinson Crusoe escapism with the trappings and services of a larger resort. There’s a boathouse on-site for fishing, snorkelling and diving excursions, and a dedicated kids’ club to keep young ones entertained. A hilltop spa offers a superb range of treatments and facilities, with a relaxation area dishing up panoramic sea views. When the hunger pangs strike, you’ll find an array of restaurants offering everything from simple Portuguese fare to slap-up seafood dinners served al fresco on the beach.
Of the resort’s 44 villas, all strung out along a wooden boardwalk to ensure plenty of privacy, my favourite was the spacious Beach Villas that offer direct access to the sands and private sun loungers for escaping the heat of the day.
I was happy to leave the diving and snorkelling for another day though, and pass a soporific few hours admiring the traditional dhows tacking against the trade winds blowing in from the Mozambique Channel. In many ways it’s a scene little changed for centuries.
In the 1500s large trading dhows would have sailed all the way to Arabia from these shores, heavily laden with gold, ivory and slaves. Today, you’re more likely to find smiling tourists aboard for a few hours of lazy sailing, or perhaps a clutch of hopeful fishermen heading out into the deep in search of a catch.
For although the Archipelago was proclaimed as a Marine Park in 1971, it’s also a living landscape and local villages have long made a living off what the ocean has to offer. It’s a delicate balancing act where the scales don’t always measure up. Take the graceful dugong, for instance, that feeds off the grasses that used to thrive in the warm shallow waters between the islands.
These ungainly ‘sea cows’ once ranged from the Seychelles to Reunion, but the Archipelago is today home to the last viable – and threatened – population of dugongs in the western Indian Ocean. Over-fishing and loss of habitat have taken their toll, and sensitive eco-tourism is one way of sustaining local communities while conserving the fragile island ecosystems.
There are few better ways to admire this remarkable slice of coastline than from the air, and the next day our helicopter whisks us high above Bazaruto Island. Banking sharply over the towering sand dunes, a short hop takes us south to the island of Benguerra.
From the air the scattering of islands is plain to see, the dark blue channels of deeper water rushing between sandbanks fleetingly revealed by the ebbing tide. If you’re lucky you might spot whales, dolphins and even dugongs from the air, but I content myself with snapping away at the patchwork of blue stretching to the horizon.
Sadly it’s not long before the skids touch down on the heli-pad at &Beyond Benguerra Island Lodge. &Beyond is famous for their safari lodges, but they’ve deftly applied the same service, style and sense of space to this idyllic corner of Benguerra. After an extensive revamp in 2015 it didn’t take long for the lodge to gain a reputation as one of the leading luxury island escapes in Africa. And it’s not hard to see why.
Just 12 secluded casinhas line the shoreline either side of the main lodge, with private plunge pools and spacious terraces as standard. Indoors, the suites are beautifully decorated in a style that blends island chic with the region’s rich history. Think gleaming copper bowls, hand-carved wooden tables and subtle Portuguese-inspired prints.
While you might be tempted to hide away in your casinha, it’s worth waving the plunge pool goodbye and getting a little adventurous.
The next morning we’re up soon after sunrise for a snorkelling excursion. The trips are timed with the tides, and the early start is well worth it. Further offshore the reefs offer superb scuba diving, while the deeper channels deliver some of the finest big-game fishing in Mozambique.
But you don’t have to be of an adventurous bent to get the most out of Benguerra. Horse riding is popular on the islands, and a leisurely plod along the beach and into the nearby communities offers a fun way to get a sense of island life. Beach picnics are easily arranged, while long walks along empty sands allow you to stop, stare and catch your breath.
And that’s perhaps the best reason to book a trip to Bazaruto. Under two hours from the big smoke you can be staring at impossibly blue seas. For a short break to brace yourself for 2018, it’s hard to beat Bazaruto.
Planning your trip
Getting there: Airlink flies direct from Johannesburg to Vilanculous five times per week. www.flysaa.com. Flights via Maputo on Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique (LAM) are cheaper, but take longer. www.lam.co.mz
Getting around: The lodge will usually arrange your transfer from the airport to the island. If you’re feeling flush, it’s worth splashing out on a helicopter transfer. If you’re not, the hour-long boat ride is also good fun.
When to go: With year-round warm weather, the dry winter months (May-November) are the best time to visit northern Mozambique.
Visas: South African passport holders do not require a visa to visit Mozambique.
Currency: Mozambican Metical. ZAR1:MZN4.25
Find out more:
&Beyond Benguerra: www.andbeyond.com/benguerra-island
Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort: http://bazaruto.anantara.com